Sidney Kingsley’s 41-year-old melodrama about life in a detective squad room seems an odd choice for a company as daring as the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company. These are the same folks, after all, who sponsored last summer’s second annual Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins Festival, the same folks who keep reviving that homage to anarchy masquerading as a talk show, Bitch With Rich.
Detective Story is by no stretch of the imagination a daring or experimental work. For one thing, Sidney Kingsley’s work must have seemed staid and square even in 1949, when it opened on Broadway, compared to the work of young upstarts like Arthur Miller (whose Death of a Salesman opened the same year). Kingsley’s brand of half social realism, half soap opera–described by his fans as “documentary melodrama”–was already well accepted on Broadway. His plays Men in White and The Patriots won prizes (the 1934 Pulitzer and the 1943 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, respectively) and a third, Dead End, did so well it was turned into a movie (that in turn spawned what seemed like an infinite series of films starring the “Dead End Kids,” later called the “East End Kids,” and finally the “Bowery Boys”).
For another, despite Kingsley’s Zola-like insistence on thorough research (he is supposed to have spent countless hours visiting station houses), Detective Story just creaks its way through a thousand cliches: the wisecracking reporter, the slippery, golden-throated shyster, the procedure-bound cop who no longer knows right from wrong. Kingsley, as critics pointed out as early as the 1935 production of Dead End, always sacrificed his carefully documented realism to satisfy the audience’s desire for action, romance, and easily resolved stories.
In Detective Story, instead of merely depicting the daily routine of New York City detectives in the (fictional) 21st Precinct station, he takes the occasion to have tough-talking Detective McLeod (a real law-and-order type in the Dirty Harry tradition) confront the moral ambiguity in the world around him. The play’s various subplots (McLeod’s crusade to bring an illegal abortionist to justice, the arrest of a pair of burglars, even the story of a former Navy hero who finds true love after he’s arrested as a first-time embezzler) all lead to the play’s sensational and unbelievably melodramatic ending.
So why would the ever nonconformist Mary-Arrchies even consider producing a play so outdated, cliche-filled, and artistically tapped out (thanks in no small part to the Barney Miller TV series) that even high schools and community theater groups have stopped performing it? Only director Richard Cotovsky knows the answer to this question. But you need only watch a few minutes of his lively, finely directed, well acted production to see that whatever attracted Cotovsky to this work also inspired him to do the impossible: to make a stale and umpromising work worth watching.
Sometimes, as Cloud 42 has shown with its enormously successful productions of The Bad Seed and Craig’s Wife, old plays are given new life as campy parodies of themselves. But Cotovsky and company have done the opposite, reviving a presumably dead work by taking it seriously and performing it with an enthusiasm other theaters have trouble mustering for far better scripts.
It helps that Cotovsky has managed to find so many capable non-Equity actors to fill his 43-member cast (among them Jeff Strong, Jennifer Bill, and Brian Sandstrom). It’s hard not to admire the professional way these actors maneuver through the play’s many group scenes without ever hesitating, stumbling, or–most surprising of all–stepping on each other’s lines. In less capable hands such a large production could have decayed into a cacophonous chaos. And Cotovsky deserves high praise for the way he has expertly choreographed this mob of actors so that every movement and gesture seems perfectly justified, part of a well-balanced stage picture. In lesser hands this play might easily have been sunk by Kingsley’s cliches. But this production succeeds in making Kingsley’s stale ideas, if not fresh and original, at least charming.